Every spring we gardeners stand in the sun as we breathe deep and fill our minds with plans for new projects, using new techniques and planting new plants.
This year my new project is a small straw bale bed for vegetables. However, I have been reading Niki Jabbour’s new book Veggie Garden Remix: 224 New Plants to Shake Up Your Garden and Add Variety, Flavor and Fun (Storey $19.95) and my ideas about what to plant are shifting. The new plants she talks about are not just new varieties of standard plants many of us usually grow. She is talking about increasing the biodiversity of our gardens with vegetables from around the world.
We talk about using native plants in our ornamental gardens, but in our vegetable gardens we usually don’t know which vegetables are native to North America. I know a few of the vegetables in our garden are native to South America including tomatoes, avocados, cashews, potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash. How many more edible plants that were not native to North America are now common at our supermarkets? I suspect quite a few. Other new plants are appearing all the time as our world gets smaller and smaller, as people leave one continent to live on another and bring their taste for familiar foods with them.
Jabbour’s book opens with a story about a gourd she planted and planned to use as a Halloween decoration. When her Lebanese mother-in-law, Noha, saw it her eyes lit up. She recognized the funny looking gourd as cucuzza, a squash tasting much like summer squash. Eating that cucuzza the whole family realized there were many vegetables from around the world that could be grown in their garden and give their meals a bit of a remix.
Like snap beans she asks? Jabbour then offers up a number of less familiar edible beans like hyacinth beans, edamame, chick peas and yard long beans with full cultural information for growing. She also throws in what her family calls daylily beans, the closed buds of the daylily which can be simply fried or dipped in batter for a tempura “bean.”
She uses that process as she opens our eyes to celtuce, a non-heading lettuce that produces tender leaves in the spring and a crunchy stem in late summer. Jabbour offers a whole array of greens to spinach lovers. She begins with the fast growing and pretty magenta spreen, and goes on to peppers, sweet potato leaves, tatsoi from China and more.
There are bigger families of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips and radishes than you ever imagined. I first saw and ate Beauty Heart, a beautiful winter radish with a green exterior, then a white layer and a broad pink layer, in China. I kept insisting my translators were mistranslating when they called it a radish. I thought the fist sized radish must be a turnip. I was wrong. When I got back to the U.S. I started seeing this radish at farmer’s markets, where it was called watermelon radish. The Chinese usually pickle it and it is delicious. It only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to complete the pickling process, and is almost immediately ready to eat.
Jabbour gives us the opportunity to try out vegetables from other lands. The Asparagus pea, a plant native to Africa, was a tintillating idea. However, she said she “is not a fan of eating Asparagus peas. “The four sided winged pods do have a hint of asparagus as well as its own sharp flavor,” but what Jabbour likes is their low sprawling habit which can cover about one to two feet of horizontal space, and the brick red flowers that bloom before the pods appear. She says they can grow in Zone 5, but it is a good idea to start the seeds indoors and wait until it is dependably warm to plant outside.
Amaranth is a plant I have admired as a flower, and knew it was edible, but I could never imagine quite how. First Jabbour describes the different species that she recommends for greens, using the foliage, as the edible element. They can be cooked like spinach. The foliage is often colorful; Thomas Jefferson brought home seeds of the tricolor amaranth from Paris for his garden.
Amaranth is also a protein rich grain plant. It needs at least 100 frost free days to produce usable seed. The amaranth many of us think of as love-lies-bleeding (A. caudatus) can be used for a seed harvest. Harvest time arrives after the first frost and Jabbour gives information about harvesting, threshing, winnowing and cooking.
The book concludes with information about Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata), which she describes as having a peppery-cilantro flavor, a good herb for the delicious Vietnamese noodle soup ‘Pho.’ It needs at least 6 hours of sun and prefers a moist soil. Clearly this is an herb I can grow successfully in my wet and damp garden. It is possible to order Vietnamese coriander plants from Richter’s Herbs. This is a great advantage if you like cilantro which goes to seed so quickly over the summer, Vietnamese coriander produces flavorful foliage all season.
There is a good index, and a list of seed companies that can give you entrée into a whole new world of vegetables.###
Between the Rows April 14, 2018